February 25th, 2009 -
The Renaissance Ballroom and Casino is an imposing block-long Harlem ruin. A vital piece of the neighborhood's history, it was built between 1920 and 1923 and was a black owned and operated center of culture - a movie theater, a ballroom, a space for basketball games, dances and meetings. It was the "setting for all of Harlem’s most important parties," according to author Michael Henry Adams, but by 1979 the complex had closed down and "by the 1990s it had so deteriorated that it was used as a setting for Spike Lee’s crack den from hell in the movie Jungle Fever."
The New York Times describes the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino as "a Harlem landmark in all but name," citing a "Landmarks Preservation Commission... proposal, dating to 1991, to designate the Renaissance complex a landmark." However, the buildings were never landmarked. The property owner, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, used backers like the New York Landmarks Conservancy to convince the Landmarks Commission that landmarking the property would "have created intolerable delays" in their plans to build a "13-story apartment house" and a "community center" on top of the complex.
In 2007, demolition began. Today, the buildings are nearly empty, exposed to the snow. A few ghostly artifacts remain inside their darkened interiors.
February 17, 2009 -
Port Morris is a Bronx industrial neighborhood covered in rust. Abandoned train tracks run overhead. A burnt-out gas station sits underneath the highway. And on the waterfront, a neglected Richard Serra sculpture is slowly rusting into the snow near an empty ferry terminal.
Between 1923 and 1969, the East 134th Street Ferry Terminal launched ferryboats out to North Brother Island and Rikers Island, according to "Over and Back, The History of Ferryboats in NY Harbor." Visitors for Typhoid Mary, who died in quarantine on North Brother Island in 1938, caught their boat here. During the same era, in 1932, the NY Times reported that "one of the worst marine-industrial accidents of the city's history" happened just offshore, when the old steamship Observation was "blown to pieces... blown to bits." According to "The Bronx: In Bits and Pieces" by Bill Twomey, the Observation "was only a few ship-lengths from shore when the boiler exploded, sinking the ship and killing 72 people on board, including the captain. Most of the dead were ironworkers who paid ten cents each for that fateful ride."
In a fitting and unintentional tribute to these forgotten ironworkers, a huge welded steel Richard Serra sculpture now rests just a few yards from their watery grave, facing the long abandoned ferry terminal. A welded nameplate inside labels it as "Bellamy" - a truly monumental piece of art worth millions of dollars. According to Man of Steel, a New Yorker article from 2002, "Bellamy" is "the spiral that Serra had named after the late Richard Bellamy, his close friend and early dealer." The sculpture was shown at the Venice Biennial before being exhibited by the Gagosian Gallery in 2001, where "one young couple got permission to be married in Bellamy." Fittingly, an article in Art Forum describes "Bellamy" as "an apt monument to the no longer living."
Despite its international acclaim, "Bellamy" is now hidden behind an old corrugated metal shed on the East River waterfront. It has been bleeding rust outdoors for at least three years, when it was used to stage a 2006 guerrilla art installation titled "Invisible Graffiti." It may have been outside even longer, according to a 2005 NY Sun article which claims Richard Serra is "storing" his sculptures in the Bronx. Like the rest of Port Morris, it could soon rust away entirely.
For other photos from this expedition, visit Bluejake and Mercurialn. Follow-up stories about this sculpture can be seen at greg.org and at archeologie du futur. In September 2010, this photo essay was featured by The New York Times in an article titled "Richard Serra Sculpture Rusts in Bronx Yard" which included one of my photos and an interview.